While thousands of veterans march in New York's annual Veterans Day Parade, Paul Rieckhoff will be at the White House for the annual Veterans Day Breakfast. Rieckhoff's grandfather served in World War II, his father served in Vietnam, and his own service was only getting started when he returned home from Iraq in 2004. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Rieckhoff runs a non profit organization, but for Rieckhoff and his colleagues, it's more like a mission.
"My job is to be a voice for all the folks who don't have one. Folks who are struggling with the VA at 23rd Street. Folks on Staten Island who can't get the mental health they need. My job is to try to be a voice for all of them," he says.
Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
IAVA provides resources for and lobbies on behalf of its nearly 300,000 members and supporters.
It started in his studio apartment in the East Village.
Now IAVA is headquartered in donated office space in Midtown, where Rieckhoff is surrounded by his fellow vets working for their nearly three million military brothers and sisters.
"The first thing I did was go to the Vets Day Parade and start talking to a whole bunch of other veterans and hear same stories and hear the same stuff and felt like I wasn't alone for the first time, and ever since then became an active member," says Iraq war veteran Derek Coy.
IAVA presents itself as the modern veterans organization, there's a commonality between all veterans, including Rieckhoff's father and grandfather.
Clearly though, this is not the old VFW.
"In 2004, there was no organization for Iraq and Afghanistan Vets. There were the older groups. There were the existing structures, but they didn’t really evolve and adapt to meet the needs of my generation—especially one that’s focused so much on technology. So social media’s really become the back bone of everything that we do," Rieckhoff says.
"We can actually do a suicide intervention on Twitter. So a vet who’s alone and feeling isolated and doesn’t have the support he or she needs and is in Staten Island, within minutes they can connect with an IAVA case worker here in New York City and get immediate support," he explains.
"In New York, and across the country, it’s kind of like the early days of the AIDS crisis. You’ve got real public health challenges—maybe even a crisis—where we’re losing our friends," he says.
Rieckhoff was a constant media presence when stories surfaced about veterans dying while waiting for care at VA facilities.
The fiasco led to the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.
It deepened Rieckhoff's skepticism of government officials and politicians who say they are supporting the troops.
"How bad did Washington have to fail for veterans to be stuck on secret waiting lists at the VA? They were dying on waiting lists and every politician jumped up and said, 'Yeah, I care about this,' but where were you in the six years prior when we knew this was happening?" he asks.
Rieckhoff claims New York has become the center of veterans activism, highlighted most prominently by the massive Veterans Day Parade.
Veterans come in from all over the country, but they live here too.
"It’s not just something that happens at Fort Bragg. They live in the Bronx. They live in Staten Island, and they’re in the New York National Guard," Rieckhoff says. "New York City appreciates our veterans no matter where they stand politically. You know, I lived in the East Village and I would walk through in uniform and I stood out more than a guy with purple hair. And at the same time, I got support."
Paul Rieckhoff grew up as the son of a Con Edison worker and a nurse in the small upstate New York town of Peekskill.
"It's not like I was exposed to the entire world. I didn't travel much. I was the first in my family to go to college. Working, blue collar type family. Football helped me see a bigger world and Amherst helped me see a bigger world and the Army really helped me see a bigger world," he recalls.
Rieckhoff played football at Amherst College, known far more for its academics than its athletics—and was student body president.
After graduation in 1998, when many of his peers were going off to work on Wall Street or attend graduate school, Rieckhoff took a path much less traveled by Amherst alums.
"I was actually debating between the Army and the Peace Corps. I thought, you know, there are different ways to serve and I was going to try to find the best way to serve, and the Army is where I ended up," he says.
He eventually transferred to the New York Army National Guard and took a job on Wall Street.
The financial work did not fulfill him, though, and he left his job on September 7, 2001.
When the World Trade Center was attacked, Rieckhoff put on his National Guard uniform and headed downtown.
"I came down the elevator in my building on 24th Street and the elevator door opened and two women who lived upstairs saw me and started crying. And they were like—they couldn't comprehend the guy who lived downstairs was also in the Army," he recalls.
"I remember going down to ground zero right after the attacks, and I was in uniform, and I was walking down towards ground zero and a lady came out to me and said, 'So glad you’re here, great to have you in New York,' and I was like I live on 24th Street," Rieckhoff says.
He volunteered to go to Iraq and served for 11 months.
Rieckhoff hardly looks like the veteran we sometimes see or hear about—broken, struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
However, his initial reentry at an apartment in Brooklyn, was hardly seamless.
"There was a spot where garbage trucks would come by in the middle of the night and hit a giant pothole, and boom, a loud boom every time—and every time I heard that I was like, 'Man, this feels like Baghdad again,'" he says. "And the folks sitting next to me on the subway didn’t know that I had just lost friends—friends had been wounded. I had been through a lot, and not that they should be expected—but I think making that transition where you’re in Baghdad one week and Brooklyn the next is very difficult."
Rieckhoff was asked to speak at Amherst about his war experience.
The speech received some local media coverage and caught the attention of 2004 Democratic Presidential Candidate and Vietnam Veteran John Kerry.
Rieckhoff is an Independent, but he was asked to give the Democratic national radio address in response to President George W. Bush.
"When we got to Baghdad, we soon found out that the people who planned this war were not ready for us. There were not enough vehicles, not enough ammunition, not enough medical supplies, not enough water..." Rieckhoff said in the address.
"I took advantage of that opportunity to talk about body armor, to talk about issues of the insurgency that folks weren't really recognizing and most of all, to tell that we weren't really supported. And in 2004 that was news," he says.
"I started with a really flat website that was for the guys in my platoon. There were 38 of us that were kind of spread all around the country, and that turned into a Myspace page, and that turned into a movement," he says.
Rieckhoff has heard some criticism from other veterans organizations, including charges of grandstanding. He says he's always learning from critics and offers no apology.
"We’re dealing with tough issues. We’re dealing with tough individual situations. We're dealing with tough campaign challenges. And we always say to ourselves, you know, it’s easier than getting shot at. It’s easier than being overseas in Afghanistan right now," he says.
In 2007, Rieckhoff was quoted in a New York Times newspaper column as saying, "The president can say we're a country at war all he wants. We're not. The military is at war. And the military families are at war. Everybody else is shopping."
Ten years after he founded IAVA, Rieckhoff is just as persistent and just as passionate.
"We are the less than one percent. We're point five percent of the overall population," he says. "I think there is a real disconnect that exists between our military and the rest of society—an unprecedented disconnect. Never happened before in American history. So I think we have to ask hard questions about what it means to go to war when most people don't go, what it means to sacrifice when most people don't sacrifice."
(Newspaper column used in above video courtesy of The New York Times.)